Divine Qualities (Part 18)

Humility, Modesty, and Absence of Ego

Amanitva (humility), adambhitva (modesty), and anahankara (absence of ego) are three related divine qualities described as signs of divine Knowledge in the Bhagavad Gita (13.7-8).

Humility consists in disinclination to proclaim one's greatness. The normal human tendency is to take credit for every success in one's life, and to blame others for all one's failures and misfortunes. We are unaware that behind all our physical and mental actions is the divine substratum called the Atman or God. We think too much of ourselves and brag about our greatness. Says Sri Ramakrishna: "Man struts about so much; but if one pours foul water into his mouth when he is asleep, he doesn't even know it; his mouth overflows with it. Where are his boasting, his vanity, his pride, then?" Swami Turiyananda, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, says: "The Lord is the protector of the humble-their friend and helper. It is, however, very difficult to be humble. Humility does not come as long as there is any egotism left."

Modesty is absence of pride, and freedom from pretension. Pride is the result of a distorted perception about oneself. Pride is based on finite things, like one's beauty, possessions, and scholarship. And there is the pride of old age. Sri Ramakrishna says: "Some people pride themselves on their riches and power-their wealth, honour, and social position. But these are only transitory. Nothing will remain with you in death." Sri Shankaracharya sounds a note of caution about succumbing to pride: "Don't be proud of your wealth, the people you know, and your youthful appearance. Time can snatch away all this in an instant." (Bhajagovindam, 11)

Ignorant of our real nature, we become attached to our body and mind. This attachment accounts for our selfishness and ego, or the feeling of "I and mine." After receiving blows from life, we grow in wisdom and realize that the people and things we considered very close to us are just frail supports, and it is futile to rely on them. Sri Ramakrishna gives a graphic example to illustrate the misery arising from egotism: "The calf bellows, 'Hamba! Hamba!', that is, 'I! I!' That is why it suffers such agony. The butcher slaughters it and the shoe-maker makes shoes from its hide. Besides, its hide is used for the drum, which is beaten mercilessly. Still no end to its misery! At long last a carding machine is made from its entrails. While carding the cotton the machine makes the sound 'Tuhu! Tuhu!', that is, 'Thou! Thou!' Then the poor calf is released from all suffering. It no longer says, 'Hamba! Hamba!' but repeats, 'Tuhu! Tuhu!' The calf says, as it were, 'O God, Thou art the Doer and I am nothing. Thou art the Operator and I am the machine. Thou art everything.' "

The ego doesn't vanish easily. It does only with the dawning of Self-knowledge. Till then it is useful for a spiritual seeker to cultivate and strengthen what Sri Ramakrishna calls "ripe ego." Unripe ego is based on attachment to body, mind, and things of the world, whereas ripe ego stems from reminding ourselves that we are children of God.

Says Sri Ramakrishna: "It is not possible to rid oneself altogether of the ego; so, as long as it is there, let the rascal remain as the servant of God....The ego that makes a man feel he is a devotee of God or a son of God or a servant of God is good. But the ego that makes a man attached to 'woman and gold' [lust and greed] is the 'unripe ego'. That ego is to be renounced."

Part 19

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